Today we had a really bad sandstorm. In the morning you would have never guessed. I left the house at 7:30 and the sky was blue and clear. Later in the day, I was going to pick up my son after a lecture and I had to drive (be driven) right into it. I took a few photos. You can actually see it approaching on the horizon. A trip that normally takes 45 minutes took twice that long. Cars were hardly moving and sirens were wailing. Firetrucks, ambulances and police cars were following the storm. It probably was a really bad day for people with asthma.
So I went to the Riyadh Book Fair this morning and overall I enjoyed it. The venue has been changed from the years before to the brand new Riyadh City Showrooms and they are a lot more spacious than the old showrooms. However what is on show is more limited than previous years. Maybe because it was so crowded the muttawas couldn’t keep up with what all the stalls were selling. A couple of years back I got these gorgeous Iranian posters from the Riyadh Book Fair.
This sort of fare is not available now. I wouldn’t have put it beyond the muttawas to black out the illustrations in children’s books or at least cross out the necks of all drawings of people. But they haven’t gone that far. They did have one of the biggest stalls though and not a book in sight. What they did have on display is all the witchcraft that they have confiscated over the years and a huge flat screen TV with a video running showing how they reverse spells. My husband tells me they also have clothes that they confiscated from local shops that supposedly have unIslamic words written on them in foreign languages. He said that one of the T-shits had the word “sexy” emblazoned across the chest. And of course their stall was the most crowded. I wanted to investigate it more but getting any closer might mean that I would rub shoulders with them and that’s not a smart move with me already being on their bad side because my face was uncovered.
I wasn’t impressed with the variety of books at the other stalls. The emphasis was largely on religion with stall after stall displaying books about how to be a good wife and how to choose a wife. The guest of honor this year is Brazil but their presence was not felt at all. Everywhere you turn, there’s either an official muttawa from the vice cops or police. I wanted to stand in the middle and shout at the top of my lungs IT’S A BOOK FAIR NOT WOODSTOCK!
Of all the stalls, I saw only one manned by a woman. She told me that she only comes when the book fair is open to women. She came on the first day and it was open to men only and she found it extremely awkward. So whenever it’s men only, she gets a guy to come in her place. She came all the way from France for this lame book fair. She also said that every now and then a muttawa would stop by her stall and “advise” her to cover her face. The newspapers reported that three men complained to the authorities and requested an official apology from the head of the vice police stating that they are respected authors over the age of fifty and they wanted to say hello to a fellow Saudi author, Halemah Mathfar, who happens to be a woman. She had a book signing and the writers were banned from speaking to her. When one of them broke the rules by waving his hand and calling out to Ms. Mathfar “thank you and goodbye”, the three were escorted to the vice cops office at the fair and given a lecture on proper Islamic conduct. The head sheikh of the vice cops at the book fair, Turki Al Shaleel, made this statement regarding the incident: “Our role at the book fair is regulatory to prevent the occurrence of sin, and we treat everyone with respect and try to resolve issues without escalation. There is an agreement between our organization and the Ministry of Culture and Information on signing books at the show. If the author is a woman people have to have their book signed through a third party so as to prevent her direct contact with the public. What happened is that a group of intellectuals objected to the signing, after controversy they reluctantly agreed to the mechanism. Then one of them provokingly raised his hand in front of everyone and called out to the author «Thank you .. good bye ». So he was asked to come to our office. The three intellectuals came voluntarily to the Office of the Hai’a and were not coerced and they left happy.”
I took my kids over to the children’s area which is strictly women and children only. Kids can make their own bookmarks and then a young Saudi volunteer laminates them. There was a huge reading corner and many children books to choose from. I was hoping that one of the volunteers would read a story to the kids but they mostly sat in a corner gossiping and laminating. I was tempted to read one of the stories aloud to the kids but then changed my mind. Oh well I hope this muttawa deadlock on everything will ease up a little before next year’s book fair.
While surfing the channels, I sometimes pass by Watani channel. This channel is basically a screen with short written summaries of news stories as they break. International news on a line at the bottom of the screen and a big white box in the middle covers local news. What’s special about this particular news source is that they cover local news that is not published in any newspaper, many of which are quite sensational. Two examples is on the Thursday they ran a story about a Saudi high ranking General being found burned to death in his car in an area north of Riyadh. And his family had reported him missing a couple of days earlier. Read the newspapers Friday …nothing. I googled Saudi general in English and Arabic and again nothing. On Saturday the story came out but it was only that a body of a 56 year old Saudi army general was found burned in a car north of Riyadh, close to Al Yamama College. No mention of names or cause of the fire. The chat forums were a lot more helpful. Especially one that gave the name of the general and the member also claimed to having had a phone conversation with the son of the deceased. He claims that the son told him that his father left the house on the Monday before in an apparently depressed mood and that he had left behind his wallet and cell phone. He also said that his father gave his mother a will in an envelope. Upon opening it and realizing what it was, they informed the police. Naturally, after this story everyone has assumed that he committed suicide. I find that hard to believe. But then I digress. Back to the Watani channel. It had the news first, on the day it broke and other news sources waited for a couple of days but they were not much more informative than the original source.
Another story I read on Watani that I know for a fact will not show up anywhere else except forums (translation from Arabic):
Investigations concerning a non gender segregated party organized by a Gynecology hospital in Madinah in which the director of the hospital and the general director of hospitals in a ministry were present. Threats about terminating the director’s contract. And there was a Bluetooth video of the party taken by one of the female employees which has pushed a number of husbands to officially complain.
I bet it was probably a quite mild and conservative party measured by international standards but to many Saudis, just having men and women mingling is equivalent to an orgy. Anyways if you can read Arabic and are in Saudi Arabia you can get Watani news on your mobile by sending an empty text to 82410. To tune in it’s Arabsat or Hotbird Satellite 11075 V 27500.
In the past, Saudi Arabia did not advertise itself for tourism. On the contrary, it’s known for its extreme conservatism and seclusion. Up until a short time ago, it was virtually impossible for outsiders to visit Saudi Arabia for other than business reasons. There is no such thing as a tourist visa for Saudi Arabia. The closest thing you can get is a business visa and you have to have a letter from a company here in Saudi Arabia vouching that you are coming for a legitimate business reason. However, lack of advertisement has not influenced the prosperity of the Saudi tourism industry. Over Two and a half million people visit Makkah annually to perform Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage. Hajj is the largest pilgrimage world-wide of its kind.
Recently the Saudi government has decided to enhance its tourism industry by opening its doors year-round to non-Muslim tourists. For that reason, the General Commission for Tourism and Antiquities was established. There is no shortage of attractions to entice would-be travelers into setting their sights here.
Snorkeling in the most beautiful sea in the world, the Red Sea is just one of the possible things they can do. And maybe take a piece of coral as a souvenir. Or they can visit one of our ancient cities, such as Madin Saleh, which was founded before Christianity. These cities are huge pieces of art carved into the mountains. These sites are hard to get to for outsiders and regular Saudis. It is easy for expatriates and upper class Saudis to go see Madin Saleh. Due to a fatwa stating that visiting this archaeological site is discouraged in Islam, regular Saudis aren’t allowed in as easily or openly.
Prospective tourists can also join in our most popular past-time, shopping. We have all kinds of stores and shops no matter what your preference is. They can shop at one of our many modern malls or at Riyadh’s old downtown souk, Batha, where they can bargain down the prices to their heart’s content. They can take their time shopping, as hardly any shop closes before eleven at night.
Just having the experience of living in Saudi Arabia and observing the local customs in itself is fascinating. Nowhere else in the world are women, by law, not allowed to drive. And by law have to cover themselves with a light black cloak. Five prayers are practiced publicly every day. Almost every two streets you’ll come across a mosque with a live-in sheikh who announces the prayer times on a microphone. So that all businesses close temporarily while Muslims prepare for prayer.
There have been organized and restricted tours to Saudi Arabia but nothing flexible and definitely no solo cheap adventurer kind of stuff that young college kids go for. You can join a tour for about 7500 dollars. For details click here
Saudi Arabia has always had a cloud of mystery and secrecy about it. However, as soon as the government opens its doors to year round tourism that cloud of mystery will rapidly disperse.
These past two weeks Riyadh has seen on and off sandstorms. When it’s really bad it kind of looks like a yellowish brown blizzard. People with asthma and allergies are confined to their houses and it’s not strange to see some people walking around with surgical masks on. No matter what you do, the sand gets in and settles on everything. My husband even got those adhesive strips that you can stick to the bottom and sides of doors, and still I can smell a grainy sandy smell inside the house. What really helped was getting a humidifier.
I don’t mind the sandstorms as much as other people do. It makes me wonder about my ancestors. And why people dress the way they do. The red and white cloths Saudi men wear now only to preserve tradition, served a true practical purpose in the past. In sandstorms they would wrap the cloth around their mouth and nose and the black band on the forehead prevented the headdress from flying away into the wind. And women did not wear abayas back then. They wore long dresses that did not define their waists and some of these dresses had sleeves that hang down so very low so that they can use the extra cloth for modesty if an unrelated man comes in. They also would have big square light cloths of different colors on hand for when they need to walk outside. These are what they now only use for prayer.
Later on in the late sixties and early seventies, abayas started to catch on. Women would still wear long dresses and put the abaya tent-style over their head but they would also grab the whole abaya in the two nooks of their elbows so that from the waist down you can see what she is wearing underneath. Kuwaiti, Emirati and even up in Iraq women dressed similarly. And then the mutawas were no longer responsible for unifying the different regions of Saudi Arabia so they turned their focus on to us poor women. Just shows you how much politics influences even the smallest details of our lives.
Last Thursday, my husband treated us to dinner at TGI Friday’s. It was an early dinner so we got there around 6:30 pm. The place was full and we had to wait 15 minutes for a table. I was really hungry and practically drooling over the menu. I ordered a Philly Steak sandwich and lemonade and everyone else ordered what they wanted. When the appetizers arrived I had a bad vibe but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I just felt that the dishware wasn’t sparkling. My hunger though pushed the thought to the back of my mind until I got my sandwich. It’s a habit of mine (thank God) to open sandwiches and eat the filling with a fork. As I was picking the juicy bits of the steak cuts, a very black, straight longish crew cut hair got entangled in my fork. I thought how disgusting, I’ll just leave the sandwich and munch on the small cup of side-serving coleslaw with the minimal appetite I have left. With a fresh fork I plunged into the coleslaw only to find half of a very soiled French fry in the middle. Obviously this cup of coleslaw was served to me secondhand. My husband called to the waiter and complained. The waiter turned to me and I quote; he said: “Let me get you another sandwich and I assure you this time without hair.” That just made me even more nauseas. The manager was called and they removed the sandwich from our table’s bill.